Month: March 2016

Spring Fluting -YouTube Masterclass

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Spring has sprung! Easter Sunday is upon us and in most places around the country flowers and plants are already in bloom. Spring marks an annual time of renewal – a season of welcoming what is new and rebuilding what has fallen into disrepair. In the spirit of the season, this is the perfect time to rebuild your flute playing from the bottom up. A great way to experiment new approaches to basic fundamentals like tone development, technique, intonation and breathing is to participate in (or even just attend) a masterclass. Masterclasses are very popular during the summer months but in Spring they are generally hosted by regional flute clubs or universities. If you are not in a position to attend a masterclass due to location or cost, you can still audit a masterclass of your own creation through the magic of the internet. There are a number of videos on YouTube from masterclasses hosted by extraordinary professional flutists near and far covering a wide range of pieces and techniques. Today’s blog features a few of these videos that you may combine to create a video masterclass. The sky is the limit, however, and I encourage you to peruse videos covering those areas of your technique that may have fallen into disrepair or those that simply need a breath of fresh air.
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Tone Development
James Galway talks about embouchure placement and tone development. Tips directly from the master of masters! I really like this simple headjoint exercise for daily tone improvement:

 

Emmauel Pahud discusses opening up the sound of the flute using postural nuances (specifically from the nose and eyes):

 

Ian Mullin discusses how singing and playing helps to improve and center flute tone. Singing and playing is quite difficult at first but the end result is a sound that is significantly more focused:

 

Technique
Gareth Davies discusses performing select orchestral excerpts and his advice on what to bring out/avoid. We could all always use some great advice on performing orchestral excerpts.

 

Jim Walker discusses how to tackle rhythm by singing the rhythm then playing:

 

Intonation
Leone Buyse discusses intonation on those pesky Db/C#s:

 

Style:
Carol Wincenc discusses understanding style by comparing French works to the waltz and cabaret and as well as placing forward articulation:

 

And finally for everything in between (expression/approach), Rampal masterclasses. If you take anything away from today’s blog it will be to watch this series of Rampal masterclasses. Rampal makes playing the flute not the chore that it sometimes turns into in the practice room but an extension of expression that is available to all of us:

 

Is there a video masterclass that you have found inspirational? How has your playing changed after attending a masterclass? Have you found any hidden gems on YouTube that have breathed new life into your approach or technique. Please comment below!
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Happy Fluting!
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Magic Shoulder Exercise (Low Register)

Welcome to another Flute Friday (posting again on Saturday…..).

This week’s blog features the next installment in my video blog series on the Magic Shoulder Exercise.

 

Have you used this exercise in your own practice? What other “magic” exercises do you use to improve the response and resonance in the low register? Please comment below.

Happy Fluting!

Smart Practice

I have a deep, dark confession – I have a day job outside of music.

I know there are many others out there like myself trying to balance their passions and their need for survival which in this economy do not always go hand in hand. With an 8-5 job, studio teaching on nights and weekends and smatterings of rehearsals and performances, practice time is often in short supply. How do we use the small amount of time allotted in our schedules to focus on sustaining foundational skills, achieving performance goals and sharpening new techniques? The word “smart practice” is sometimes dropped in relation to reprioritizing practice time to achieve particular goals however the definition of what qualifies as “smart” practice time remains nebulous. Is “smart practice” simply setting and sticking to a routine no matter what? Or is it only practicing a certain piece on certain days of the week? Does it refer to working only on the difficult bits and if so how should we work on troublesome sections effectively in such small amount of time? In today’s blog I will outline a few ways to make the most out of your practice time and suggestions for what “smart practice” means for those of us with little time on our hands.
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Block Out Specific Times to Practice and Stick to your Schedule
We all know the old adage that 30 minutes of focused practice each day is far more productive than a 2-3 hour cram session on Sunday afternoons. It is also true that unfocused practice sessions that expand beyond your allotted schedule are a drain on time and resources. I say this because I live it. Now and then I will promise myself “only 1 hour” of focused practice on weeknights however after my timer goes off I often switch to unfocused, “I will play what I want because it is fun”, musical meanderings. I am not saying that creative musical meanderings do not have a time or place (they do! It’s called Saturday) but when you are short on time or simply want to use your time to its fullest potential, it is more important to practice efficiently with your goals in mind. My practice power hours are typically between 8-10 pm on the weeknights. Sometimes this is shortened to 8:30-9:30 pm if I am working on other projects but I use this hour to practice to a specific goal. If you wait for a convenient time to practice to materialize in your evening, chances are it will never come knocking because life gets in the way. Find your power hour(s) and stick to it. Download a timer app on your smart phone, set an egg timer or recruit your husband, significant other or even your kids to annoy you to stop practicing when your allotted time is up. Sometimes the most effective work produced in this world is that which is created on a deadline.
 
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Set a Theme and Game Plan for Each Day
All or nothing thinking creates blockages within progress. Guess what? You do not have to practice all the music your have on your plate every day. I know what you are thinking – Blasphemy! Feeling or thinking you need to work on everything every time you open your flute case to practice will lead to burnout and you may start finding creative ways to procrastinate your overwhelming practice sessions. I have been there – water the plants, sweep the floors, vacuum the house at 10 pm, read a book, etc. – you name it. It was not until I learned to organize themes for each practice session and priorities within those themes that my shorter weekday practice session became effective and I began accomplishing more in a shorter period of time (therefore helping me to sleep a bit better at night). I like to divide my practice session into 3 parts: 1.) Foundational Theme of the Day (tone, scales, flexibility, articulation, chunking, etc.); 2.) Piece of the Day #1 and 3.) Piece of the Day #2 or Excerpts of the Day. Within this framework I give the entire session one principal goal. On Mondays, for example, this may be a focus on strengthening technique with slow practice. On Tuesdays I may focus on tone improvement in the middle register. Wednesdays are typically chunking days – what difficult passages can I chunk to improve finger dexterity? My practice plan for the first part of the week therefore may look something like this:
MONDAY – Long Tones (low register focus); Piston Sonata, Movement 1 (goal – improving resonance of passages in the lower octave);  Rememorizing Nielsen Concerto (pages 1-2)
 
TUESDAY – Scales (varied articulation on Taffanel/Gaubert Exercise #4); Dutilleux Sonatine (focus on cadenzas, ironing out scales and slow practice on articulated sequences); Excerpts – Mendelssohn Scherzo, Voiliere, William Tell, Symphonic Metamorphosis
 
WEDNESDAY – Flexibility Exercises (Trevor Wye Tone Book); Karg-Elert Appassionata Sonata (focus on chunking technical passages); Rememorizing Nielsen Concerto (pages 3-4, focus on chunking difficult passages on page 4)
 
Set up your themes and practice plans on Sunday night before the chaos of the week begins to unfold. Stick to your schedule and remove all else from your music stand each day (if something else is on your stand it is likely to distract you from your core daily goals – I’m talking to you, Ibert Concerto). You will be pleasantly surprised how much more you accomplish using a simplified practice schedule built upon fewer yet simplified core goals applied to 1-2 pieces per session.
 
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Bracket Sections that Need TLC and Don’t Fix what isn’t Broken
Right now stop reading this, grab your music and a pencil and place brackets {   } between the sections in your music that you know you need to practice. This includes those pesky technical passages in the high register, the octave jumps in the melody that jump out of the texture in not so cantabile ways and the articulated patterns that plague your tongue, fingers, brain, etc.. These are your priorities. Improving these weaknesses are what stands between you and achieving your performance goals. I know how enjoyable it is to play passages that you know you can always nail or beautiful melodies that sing to your heart but when you only have a short amount of practice time to work with on the daily, those sections of the music are gorgeous, exciting distractions. Practice your brackets. Break them apart. Practice them slowly. Chunk them. Change the rhythm. Transpose them to another key (warning: this will be a bit mind blowing). Slur everything. Tongue everything. Use your time to creatively think about your weakness and practice passages with particular goals in mind. Devoting your time to passages that are already in decent shape is like trying to fix what isn’t broken. Instead break out your toolbox and focus on that busted pipe in the musical kitchen.
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Review, Revise and Restructure
Sunday nights are magical because they force you to think about the week ahead before it happens. Use this time to think about what you accomplished in your practice session over the previous week. What worked well? What did you spend too much time working on? What did you did you not spend enough time working on? How is your overall sound and what could be improved? Are there passages that are still sloppy or not quite up to snuff? What would you like to memorize? Do you have a concert coming up? Did you stick to your practice schedule last week as planned? This is the perfect time to review, revise and restructure. Think about your goals. Think about your performance deadlines. Restructure your practice plan based on what your learned from last week and what you wish to accomplish this week. Remember that practice is a process and like any process there is an element of planning that must be incorporated to lead to true progress.
 
What does “smart practice” mean to you? How do you design your own practice sessions when you are short on time? What does your weekly practice plan look like? Please comment below!
 
Happy fluting!

Good Vibrations

Welcome to this week’s edition of Flute Friday!

Vibrato is a mysterious element of music making that many beginners struggle to understand and few seasoned performers truly master. At its most basic level, vibrato is a wavering of sound produced by manipulations of air and pitch designed to express different tone colors as appropriate to the musical line. The goal is to capture a natural sound using unnatural techniques. Many students are initially uncomfortable learning how to use vibrato and, once established, have a difficult time controlling and manipulating vibrato speed or, conversely, attempt to measure vibrato so that the speed and corresponding affect do not change. Introverted students may even hide their vibrato, only applying it sparingly on longer notes when they know their teacher is listening. Today’s blog will help demystify vibrato in terms of how to learn, practice and refine the technique. I hope these approaches help beginners better understand how to shape their budding vibrato technique and experienced performers conceptualize vibrato in new, more effective (or affective) ways.

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Ha Ha Ha!

The most basic way to produce vibrato on the flute is to use silent “ha ha ha” syllables. When one laughs or says “ha ha ha,” small puffs of air dance on top the air stream. When these “ha ha ha”s are connected (as if a large slur was placed over all of the syllables) the result is a wavering or spinning of the air. Try this exercise away from the flute: Simply yet silently say “ha ha ha” connecting each syllable with the air stream. You can practice this exercise anywhere – at school, at work, at home, in church, in the shower, etc. Once you are comfortable creating air vibrato away from the flute, apply the same wavering air stream to the instrument. Select a comfortable note (low A or B for example) and practice using the silent “ha ha ha” to create a spinning or vibrating sound. You have just used vibrato! It feels weird, right? With enough time and practice, vibrato will become a natural part of your playing. While you are still learning, however, it is best to practice the vibrating stream away from your flute and consciously try to use your new vibrato on every note you play on the flute. Do not be afraid of vibrato and do not become disheartened if you are not a vibrato master right off the bat. Vibrato takes practice and patience.

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Hearing Vibrato – Descending Exercise

Vibrato must sound natural but it should not be so disguised within the sound that it is inaudible. When I was learning how to create vibrato I was very self-conscious that I was “doing it wrong.” To conceal my uneasiness with the technique, I tried to bury my vibrato in the sound so that it could only be heard on longer notes. Luckily my flute teacher at the time knew precisely what I was doing and gave me an exercise that I use to this very day to help me practice hearing vibrato. The following exercise should be played starting on a middle B natural and the beats of vibrato should be slow and wide enough to count:

Start on middle B natural. Descend chromatically from B, Bb, A, Ab playing 8 beats of vibrato on each note.

Start again on middle Bb. Descend chromatically from Bb, A, Ab, G playing 7 beats of vibrato on each note.

Start again on middle A natural. Descend chromatically from A, Ab, G, Gb playing 6 beats of vibrato on each note.

Start again on middle Ab. Descend chromatically from Ab, G, Gb, F playing 5 beats of vibrato on each note.

Start again on middle G. Descend chromatically from G, Gb, F, E playing 4 beats of vibrato on each note.

Start again on middle Gb. Descend chromatically from Gb, F, E, Eb playing 3 beats of vibrato on each note.

Repeat the above vibrato progression beginning on F natural descending chromatically from F, E, Eb, D playing 8 beats of vibrato on each note.

The beauty of this exercise is that it forces you to listen to your vibrato in terms of speed, transparency and sound quality. This can also be used to perform experiments with your vibrato. Did you hear a performer on YouTube whose vibrato you admire? Try to replicate their speed and consistency using the above exercise. Do you want to experiment with bendy or washing machine vibrato? This exercise is perfect! Is your vibrato consistently too fast? Too slow? Use the above to iron out all of the kinks in your vibrato by training your ears to listen and correct.

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Washing Machine Vibrato (or “Bendy” Vibrato)

Once you have mastered the “ha ha ha” style of vibrato (sometimes referred to as “air vibrato”) you may begin to refine the way you produce and think about vibrato. Compare how vibrato is created on other instruments to how it is created on the flute. For example, on a stringed instrument, vibrato is made using a gentle rocking of the string back and forth from the wrist. Essentially what is happening in this context is that the pitch is being lowered and lifted with each pulse of vibrato. What many flute players do not know is that we can do the same thing on our instruments using our embouchure and air stream. Begin with a straight tone, perhaps on one of our safe notes such as low A or B natural. Lower your air stream and bring both your jaw and your upper lip slightly forward and down to lower the pitch as low as it will go then lift your air stream and return to a normal embouchure. This is a slow motion recreation of string vibrato. Repeat this process moving slightly faster between the bent pitch and the standard pitch and repeat. Practice this exercise faster with each repetition, focusing on dropping the pitch with the air stream rather than overusing the embouchure, until you hear a spinning vibrato produced at roughly the same speed of your air vibrato. The result is a vibrato that emanates directly from the sound itself rather than one that dances on top of the air column. I refer to this type of vibrato as “Washing Machine” vibrato because it sounds similar to a washing machine running on the rinse cycle. The sound created on the flute, however, sparkles brighter (and better in tune) using washing machine vibrato than it does with air vibrato. Try it out!

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Vibrato Pitfalls and Scared Chipmunk Vibrato

I like to tell my students that there is a major difference between Scared Chipmunk vibrato and Yo Yo Ma. Many students begin with a fast, tense vibrato because they are trying very hard to both create and hear their vibrato. Search for any recording on YouTube featuring Yo Yo Ma or, my personal favorite, Luciano Pavarotti, and listen to the ease with which they create their vibrato. There are no scared chipmunks on stage. Strive for that slower, effortless vibrato when the music calls for beautiful, melodic playing and an intense but controlled speed during climatic moments. Vibrato speed should remain flexible and appropriate to the tone of the music. Too much is overkill. Too little is empty. Listen to the masters and find a vibrato speed and sound that compliments your playing style. Always experiment using the above exercises. Record yourself. How does your vibrato sound in a recording compared to the vibrato you hear yourself creating in the practice room?

 

Do you have any vibrato exercises that have improved both the sound and consistency of your vibrato technique? Have you experimented with different ways to create vibrato? Is there a performer whose vibrato you love? Please comment below.

 

 

Happy Fluting!